What gets your attention in the video recording studio (which also doubles as the bedroom) of the best technology reviewer on the planet are not the two 31-inch ASUS HDTV monitors, nor the fancy array of lights, not even the $50,000 Red Epic Dragon video camera.
It’s the boxes of Cheerios — Honey Nut Cheerios to be exact — in the closet.
“I’ll tell you the story behind that,” says a smiling Marques Brownlee.
When Brownlee was making tech videos in his dorm room at Stevens Institute of Technology three years ago, the LED display on his microwave kept flashing annoyingly in the background.
Quick solution: Block the display with a box of Cheerios.
His followers on YouTube liked the effect so much Brownlee kept the cereal boxes in the background in all subsequent videos.
And those tech videos? Brownlee, a tall, lanky, affable Stevens senior who is also an Ultimate Frisbee player, had exactly 78 subscribers after his first 100 YouTube videos.
He now has two-plus million YouTube subscribers on his MKBHD (stands for Marques K. Brownlee high-def) channel, and his reviews on the latest smartphones, tablets, monitors, headphones and other equipment are considered must-views in the tech community.
For instance, a video posted two weeks ago on the Google Nexus 6 phone has already garnered 900,000 views. At one point last week Monday, Brownlee had three of the first ten recommended videos on YouTube’s home page.
When Marques talks, people watch — and listen.
On his Google+ page last year, Vic Gondotra, a former Google exec in charge of the development of Google Plus, called Brownlee “the best technology reviewer on the planet right now.”
Brownlee’s reaction to that pronouncement?
“Wow,” he said. “It was so humbling that he’s enjoyed my work enough to share it with such praise,” Brownlee says.
He may known in cyberspace, but he’s a virtual unknown at Stevens. He said he’s been recognized just five times on campus and three times in Hoboken. Before saying else, a man who walked up to him asked, “Hey man, Nexus 6 — yes or no?”
In his first tech video, recorded on a webcam in his parent’s house while a sophomore at Columbia High School in Maplewood, Brownlee reviewed the remote that came with his new laptop. The lighting is terrible, and the future online celebrity speaks more to his shoulder than to the camera.
The viewer response to that video?
“Probably close to nothing,” he says nonchalantly.
His equipment setup has come a long way since then, with the Red Epic Dragon (“I saved a long time for that”) and Sennheiser microphone and professional lighting.
His demeanor, too: Brownlee talks plenty of tech in his videos, but it’s easily digestible, aided by the student’s personable, knowledgeable but not nerdy approach.
“Best Youtube channel at the moment,” one subscriber, Adrien Pierret, said on YouTube. “I watch all of his videos and his talent comes from the great filming/editing skills and the clarity of his explanations. He cuts straight to the point and has a great speech flow.”
In his latest review, Brownlee praises the Nexus 9’s “pretty good” display, its “better grip-ability,” and “sharp resolution,” but calls the buttons “awful, terrible . . . super mushy and not clicky or tactile at all.”
He’s done videos on the five best smartphone cameras; the top five headphones under $200; phone battery-saving tips; the top five reasons why Google+ is “awesome” and a self-described “rant” that there are too many Android phones out there. A review where he performed a scratch test on a iPhone 6 Sapphire display drew eight million views.
Brownlee has even test-driven and reviewed a car, the Tesla S.
Today, which happens to be his 21st birthday, he will test-drive the BMW i8, which the car maker calls “the most progressive sports car” and lists for $135,000.
Brownlee doesn’t have to worry much about finding a job after graduation; advertising revenues allowed him to buy that Red Epic Dragon, after all. Brownlee declines to give exact numbers, but SocialBlade, which tracks growth and projected earnings on YouTube, says his estimated yearly earnings, based on his current numbers, would be $72,000 at the low end.
“Every hour there are a couple hundred more people who discover (the YouTube channel),” he says. “That’s just nuts to me.”
He admits to a “really big soft spot” for red and black-colored tech and clothes. Says he’s “not a loud or boisterous person” and doesn’t talk a lot, but is a “huge” music listener, especially house. Favorite tunes include Wolgang Gartner’s “Push and Rise,” Zedd’s “Lost at Sea” and Daft Punk’s “Human After All.” He never goes anywhere without his JayBird BlueBuds X wireless earbuds.
The YouTube sensation may be uber-tech savvy, but he’s dropped his phone multiple times, just like the rest of us.
The future? More tech videos, and more branching out into TVs, monitors, cars and other subjects.
“Anything with a button on it,” he explains, “is game.”
Advice to those whose YouTube channels seem to be going nowhere, as his once did?
“Don’t get impatient, don’t get down about it,” he says. “Just make videos about things you love and people who love the things you love making videos about will find you.”
Peter Genovese may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @PeteGenovese or via The Munchmobile @NJ_Munchmobile.
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